Friday, June 09, 2006
Judge sides with Muslim in Ramadan scarf lawsuit
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
Tucson, Arizona Published: 05.31.2006
PHOENIX — A national car rental firm illegally discriminated against a Muslim woman in the wake of 9/11 by refusing to let her wear a scarf during the holy month of Ramadan, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver rejected arguments by Alamo Rent-A-Car that it could not exempt Bilan Nur from its corporate dress code. Silver said the company made no efforts to reasonably accommodate Nur's beliefs and failed to show that making any accommodations would have caused the company undue hardships.
In fact, Silver noted that the company's regional manager admitted under questioning that the only hardship Alamo might suffer is the image that the firm has with customers.
Nur's claim was among the first filed by EEOC dealing with anti-Muslim discrimination after the terrorist attacks.
Silver's ruling means that the only issue to be determined is how much the company will need to pay the woman, who has since left Arizona.
Mary Jo O'Neill, regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed suit on Nur's behalf, said her agency is seeking lost pay, other compensatory damages and punitive damages.
O'Neill said the commission is seeking a punitive award because the evidence shows that the decision to deny Nur the right to wear a head scarf was not made solely by the manager of the Phoenix office where she worked. O'Neill said this decision went to corporate offices as well as the firm's attorney.
"They should have known" about the requirements of federal law, O'Neill said.
A spokesman for Alamo refused to comment, saying the litigation is still an open issue.
O'Neill said there is a link: She said Nur, who had worked for Alamo since 1999, had been allowed to wear a scarf during Ramadan in two prior years.
It was only during Ramadan of 2001 —three months after the attacks — that Nur was told she could not wear a scarf while waiting on customers. O'Neill said Nur even offered to wear an Alamo scarf but was rebuffed.
She eventually was fired.
O'Neill said federal law does generally recognize the right of companies to have a policy of what employees can and cannot wear. But she said that is not absolute.
"When it comes to religion you have to bend a little," she said.
For example, she cited another EEOC lawsuit against Blockbuster Video which had refused to let a Jewish employee wear a yarmulke. The company had a policy against letting workers wear headgear.
"Well, a yarmulke is not the same as a baseball cap," O'Neill said.
"Businesses have to recognize that when there's a religious belief or practice, that they need to bend unless there's a darn good reason why they can't."
Nur, a Somali immigrant, has moved to Minneapolis.
In a statement released through the EEOC, Nur said she was pleased by Silver's ruling.
"No person should ever have to be forced to choose between her religion and her job," the statement read.
Nur said Alamo was willing to accommodate her before the 9/11 attacks. "Then something changed," she said.
In its response to the lawsuit, Alamo argued that federal law does not require companies to accommodate a worker's religious beliefs if it would impose undue hardship. And that has been defined by the courts to mean some financial burden beyond minimal costs.
But Silver said the company's assertion of hardship was based merely on speculation.
For example, the judge noted that Alamo said accommodating Nur would open the door to other workers' violating dress code. But Heather Phillips, the company's western regional manager, could identify none.
Instead, Phillips acknowledged during questioning that the only hardship on Alamo would be customers' image of the company.
Posted by Editor at 1:16 AM